The CHP & Turkey’s Anti-Kurdish History
By Hussein Jummo
The current plight of the Kurds in Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) has evolved through decades of state engineering and racist policies, which have resulted in the current crises under the Turkish state. A historical analysis demonstrates that the construction of Turkey was established precisely for the purpose of controlling, repressing, and silencing minorities such as the Kurds.
The policies and reforms imposed early on in the Turkish Republic following the demise of the Ottoman Empire were intended to minimalize and disempower the presence and very existence of minorities within the borders of the newly formed ‘Turkish state’. While the Kurds were simply one of the various suppressed ethno-religious minorities forcibly encompassed within the colonial formed Turkish state, they were nevertheless subject to the overwhelming majority of the repressive reforms and policies on account of their position as the largest remaining minority population in the country following the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides (which predated Turkey’s establishment in 1923).
The following account will highlight some of the historical policies, reforms, and decisions taken by the Turkish regime in order to orchestrate Turkish supremacy and the obsessive adherence to the fascistic mentality of “one nation, one flag, one language.” An analysis of history and crucial events that have shaped the current status of the Kurds in Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) is essential in decolonizing the established and often incorrect history of the Kurds as presented by their occupiers. Additionally, even the Kurds themselves often remain largely unaware of crucial historical junctures and events that have shaped their current realities. As a result, analyzing what may appear to be niche historical contexts can help fill that essential gap, while also indicating how historical events over time accumulate through slow incremental steps that force entire groups of peoples towards oppressive, de-humanized, and second-class statuses.
The Sultan vs The Porte
In his memoir, Turkey’s second President (1938-1950) and first Prime Minister (1961-1965) İsmet İnönü – who was also deputy chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – describes why the new Turkish Republic abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, theorizing: “We faced an enormous challenge when we abolished the caliphate… however, a two-pronged system could not be tolerated forever.” Ironically, it can be argued that since 1924, the same republic merely replaced their former dualism (Sultan vs Central Administration) with a new complex, more secular one: the centralized state and authoritarian nationalist political parties. Nevertheless, a common tie that united the central state and the respective parties that came into power was their xenophobic hatred of anyone who did not replicate the state-produced Turkish identity and citizenship.
Previous to 1923, the Ottoman Empire’s governing system, which had a Sultanate and the office of the Sublime Porte, functioned in a competing and contesting duality. Where the Sublime Porte acted as the metaphorical and physical gateway for the principle state departments and decision-making governing body. This duality divided and decentralized the power of the Empire, to the benefit of non-Turkish elements within society.
A powerful example of this duality and its decentralizing effects can be see in the role of the Janissaries and their eventual bloody eradication. During the Ottoman Era, power was divided between the Sultan and the increasingly powerful subclass within society known as the elite, centuries old military corps, the Janissaries. The original Janissaries were made up of Christian child slaves kidnapped from Greek, Croat, Slovenian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Bosnian and Albanian communities of Eastern Europe, which was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. These boys were forcibly circumcised, converted to Islam, and trained as an elite military mercenary force for Ottoman Imperial goals. Over the centuries, their growth increased, so that in time they became a hereditary class of powerful political elites who did not pay taxes, and who exerted increasing influence over foreign and domestic political decisions within the Empire, which increased popular resentment towards them.
Fearing this increasing influence, Sultan Mahmood II announced the establishment of a new army, and disbanded the Janissary corps, which resulted in a bloody uprising. By 1826, the Janissaries had been destroyed and most of them imprisoned, exiled, or executed during an event called the “Auspicious Incident”. This was perhaps a foreshadowing of the brutal methods that would centuries later be deployed by the Turkish deep state. No alternative to the official, central authority would be tolerated.
In 1839, the Tanzimat (Reorganization) began under Sultan Abdulmecid I and would last until 1876 – with the goal of modernizing the Ottoman Empire. However, such modernization caused the emergence of ethno-religious and nationalist biases when it came to power sharing, as various ethnic groups were forced to decide if they wanted to side with the Sultan or the Sublime Porte (central government bureaucracy). For instance, during this time the vast majority of Kurds in the Ottoman Empire supported the Sultan, while Armenians (particularly the elite in Istanbul) supported the Porte.
This duality between the two Turkish institutions served as a form of checks and balances against excessive power or influence by the government or a particular ethnic group over others. These rivalries between the ruling powers meant that local communities often did not have to fully submit to the governing authorities. Consequently, this historic phenomenon was a source of strength and survival for minorities such as the Kurds and allowed them to maintain their ethnic identities.
Thus, historically two-pronged governments would secure a semblance of protection for these communities against other hostile groups. This process was however aggravated when Western Christian missionaries arrived to Kurdish, Armenian, and Nestorian territories at the onset of the 19th century. Led by its leaders, these communities fought each other in prolonged tribal wars and conflicts. This intra-group tension reached its apex in the Armenian Genocide in 1915, which was committed under The Union and Progress Committee (CUP) with the participation of different factions of Hamidiye regiments. The Hamidiya cavalry, established in 1891, consisted primarily of Sunni Kurdish, Turkish, Turkman, Yoruk, Arab and Circassian factions; and although they were originally formed to supposedly patrol the Russo-Ottoman frontier, they were in reality often utilized to brutalize Armenian communities (on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan).
Modern Turkey, 1923
When the Turkish Republic was declared in 1923, such duality was no longer visible, which suggested that the possibility of locating alternative mechanisms of power contestation did not exist. With Christians (Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians) mostly removed, following the genocides which laid the foundation for Turkey, the political balance was overturned. The centralization of state power, and the eradication of the Ottoman principalities ensured that there was even further control imposed on non-Turkish minorities. The situation of minorities became increasingly precarious with consecutive pogroms, forced displacements, and migrations, alongside the destruction of thousands of villages to herd minorities into increasingly over-crowded urban centers where poverty, disease, and lawlessness prevailed.
Neither the Kurds, nor other increasingly oppressed peoples deliberately not included in the constitution, were able to take the side of an association against another as they did previously throughout Ottoman history. As a result, the Kurds were the last remaining large non-Turkish ethnicity and forced to submit to the new state in order to survive. In order to ensure that Kurds understood this new reality, Turkey carried out mass murder in the Sheik Said Rebellion (1925), and Dersim Genocide (1937-38). And the party that held political power during this time: Atatürk’s CHP.
In 1946, the Turkish parliament voted to form a multi-party system and immediately, many parties arose, creating a situation in 1950 when the marginalized social classes punished the formerly one-party system. Turkey then inaugurated a new era under the Democrat Party / DP (1946-1961) with leaders who were originally members of the CHP but had defected. The DP for their part was more tolerant of Islam and did not adhere to the secular principles that Atatürk had established. The DP also opened themselves up to more traditional and rural ‘brown Turk’ populations, away from the west coast of Turkey, including the Kurds. As a result, the rotation of power from CHP to the DP was assisted with votes from the Kurds. In fact, during the 1954 elections, the Democratic Party won 34 of the 40 seats in Northern Kurdistan.
However, for those ultra-Kemalist ‘white Turks’ remaining in the CHP, this multi-party ‘partially-Islamified’ democracy was seen as a catastrophic ending of the ‘unified’ secular Kemalist Turkey they and Atatürk had envisioned. If there was going to be a populist “winner-takes-all” electoral model in Turkey, they wanted to ensure they would control the ruling party against the persecuted opposition. This came to fruition in 1960 with the Turkish military’s coup d’état and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Any semblance of Turkish democracy that had begun to emerge, was essentially suffocated with the noose around Menderes’ neck. While such a symbolic and bloody ending was a prelude to the undemocratic abuses, authoritarianism, and ethno-religious oppression of the coming decades.
During the ten years the CHP was out of power (1950-1960), the Kurds collectively voted for the Democratic Party. Deposing CHP was a historical success for both the Kurds and other Muslim-leaning factions. However, the Kurds failed to effectively use this win to their advantage, or to secure any linguistic or cultural rights.
The DP had sought to form a less violent and brutal government, different to the one prevailing when the Republic was first declared. Marginalized Kurds and Islamists gained the ground to locate a second alternative for governance and establish peaceful alternative networks in the heart of the regime. However, this trend failed as they were preceded by a new political track led by an aspiring and ambitious young man delivering speeches focusing largely on history and social violence. This newcomer was called Alparslan Türkeş, who would eventually become the founder and president of the extreme right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the neo-fascist Grey Wolves. Türkeş held a pan-Turkic worldview and sympathized with the Nazi ideology of Adolf Hitler, which he molded to fit a Turkish cultural context. In time, his fascistic ideas would infect almost every institution within the Turkish state and become commonplace, to the deadly detriment of groups like the Kurds and any remaining Armenians or Greeks within Turkey.
Meanwhile, in the period extending from 1950- 1980, the Kurds sought to establish their distinct cultural presence as their main focus. As a result, the Kurds were targets of extensive violently repressive assimilationist policies by the Turkish Republic during this era. The “Eastern Report” of 1961, which aimed towards forced ethnic cleansing and migration of the Kurds to prevent Kurdish separatism and to dilute heavily Kurdish populated regions epitomized this repressive policy. By the 1970’s the Kurdish-Turkish conflict had commenced in earnest and by the 1980’s the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) had started its guerilla war against the genocidal Turkish state. To counter the PKK, the repressive “Village Guard” (Korucular) system was established in this period, which also created an atmosphere of distrust, instability, inter-Kurdish conflict and tension, as well as terror.
The Looming Shadow of Atatürk?
Much could be said about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, his party, and local and regional contexts of his one party (CHP) rule. However, even the bloody formation of the republic in 1923, was not nationalist enough for some. For instance, there also existed a discontented group of officers who were displeased towards Ataturk’s approval of freezing the Turkey’s borders and the territorial commitment that was set by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. They were in essence, an ultra-nationalist group that continuously sought to overcome and reject the Lausanne ‘imposed’ borders.
Over the course of long decades, the views of these Turkish ultra-nationalists have attained power, with electoral victories aided through support by NATO and its anti-Soviet security apparatuses, which made the situation of the Kurds even worse, and their unfettered oppression by the Republic more pronounced.
With the ultimate taking possession of the Republic by Turkey’s deep state in 1960, following the bloody coup, and under the guise of combating communism, there remained no room for a two-pronged state. Rather, a centralized state that destroyed multi-cultural society by employing unprecedented levels of excessive violence was established and strengthened.
The destruction caused to the structure of the Kurdish community up to 1960 was beyond repair during this period, which was marked by decades of state-imposed violence, repression, murder, and massacres. The Turkofication policy under CHP then shifted from a racially-driven one to a more dangerous phase when the state succeeded in creating within the Kurdish community a group who preferred to willingly assimilate behind a less extremist replica of state authority. Essentially, they realized that rather than eliminating all of the Kurds, they could weaponize some of them against each other, to ‘divide and conquer’. But limited results were produced, especially with the the emergence of PKK Kurdish guerrillas who gave patriotic Kurds an outlet to defend their rights against state violence.
In addressing this issue, the imprisoned Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has reflected that: “The Kurds proved to themselves from the period extending from 1950 up to 1980, that protecting their identity was the most important cause for them. All discourses and discussions centered on one question: did the Kurds still exist or not?” In today’s Turkey, this question still remains unanswered.
Relatedly, the aforementioned neo-Ottoman aspiration that Turkey’s borders must continually expand still exists within today’s MHP party and has been embraced by Turkey’s current dictator Erdoğan. Which shows how many of the current motivations driving Turkish policy are rooted in the past. Ironically, it is now the CHP and their Presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who will attempt to depose Erdoğan’s AKP and the MHP, though it is not yet known if they will be able to shed the Turkish nationalism that infects all the dominant parties in Turkey, except for the ones aligned with Kurds (HDP / YSGP) or the Turkish left.
Finally, even today, as CHP leads in the upcoming May 14, 2023, Presidential election polls against Erdoğan’s AKP, there is another question which begins to pose itself: Which party is closer to Ataturk’s CHP? Will the CHP if they are allowed to take power, be able to update or ‘renew’ Kemalism without it conflicting with the mutated ‘Atatürkism’ that the ultra-nationalist MHP has spread throughout all of Turkish politics. Both sides of this debate have a history of anti-Kurdish policies, so it must also be asked what these elections will entail for the 20+ million Kurds within Turkey’s borders? Would a victorious CHP be able or allowed to reform itself, be honest about their past, and open up a new peace process with the Kurds? Or is today’s Turkey still a place where any humanity towards non-Turks will ultimately be perceived as treason against the state itself? History can give us hints of the answer, but only time will tell.